Vincent says you are here
Flaccid weapons, maps and recreations of historical portraiture; Rachel Jena learns about Vincent Leong’s solo, which he put together just for us
I first encountered a Vincent Leong in a high school classroom filled with lockers. The year was 2009 and Vincent’s ‘Run, Malaysia, Run’ – a video projection of Malaysians jogging in national costumes like the baju melayu and the classic secondary school uniform – was in Rumah Air Panas’ ‘Contemporary Art in School Project’ at Stella Maris High School. All you could hear in the space were the footsteps of the work’s protagonists, and there I was grinning from ear to ear, experiencing what was quite possibly a high school highlight.
You can watch ‘Run, Malaysia, Run’ on YouTube. It’s wry, but also incredibly poignant – are we all defined by costumes and race? It’s this sort of query that characterises Vincent’s polemic, and it signals just how the artist approaches cerebral topics with tinges of humour. The latter’s a definite plus on most counts, so when I got wind that Valentine Willie Fine Art would be hosting the artist’s solo this month and I spotted a flaccid rubbery keris amongst the works, I found that wide grin returning to my face.
Titled ‘You Are Here’, Vincent says that this long overdue solo is an assessment of his practice that’s now teetering towards the ten-year mark. ‘This show is actually a collection of ideas from the last three or four years that I just never did for whatever reason. It was a good time to put it all together, and only then did I notice that all these works are targeted to a specific audience – Malaysia and specifically KL.’
Vincent’s ‘gift’ to us is timely. Our interview took place days before KL was set to receive a flood of yellow t-shirts (and a fog of teargas, as was later evident), and the artist’s works are reflections on the state of our times. Malaysian identity lies at the core of ‘You Are Here’, and though Vincent feels this subject is overdone, he admits that it’s unavoidable. ‘I used to think that this was a really boring subject, but you cannot escape it. At the end of the day, all your ideas come from your own personal identity’.
‘You Are Here’ features the listless keris and other works that also adopt Malaysian icons. A series of photographs called ‘Exclusive Properties’ are juxtapositions between decaying structures and grandiose monuments like KLCC, snow globes have been filled with local ingredients like palm oil, and a map of KL – an ongoing work featuring contributions Flaccid weapons, maps and recreations of historical portraiture; Rachel Jena learns about Vincent Leong’s solo, which he put together just for us Vincent says you are here from various individuals – which looks at the notions of memory and place.
The show’s real stress, though, is on you, the viewer. ‘Even if he or she isn’t physically or visually part of the work, their reading or reception is very important to me’. The artist points to the light boxes in ‘Farewell to Format’ as an example; its images are reflections from old television sets, but what audiences will gaze upon first is their own reflection. ‘This reflection is as important as the photograph itself. The point of this thing was to balance these two. It’s about you, the person in the gallery, standing in front of the work,’ he explains.
Vincent’s works certainly get you thinking. They may seem lofty at first (the kid went to Goldsmith’s, for heaven’s sake), but like Vincent’s argument about how questioning identity is inherent in all of us, these works will undoubtedly resonate with Malaysian eyes. Need convincing? Consider the artist’s ‘Malaysian Family Portraits’, appropriations of old royal portraiture with Chinese and Indian families posing in place of Malay royalty and statesmen. If you’ve grown up here, the symbolism beyond the stiff expressions will be apparent, and the work’s arguments on otherness and discrimination will hit home.
Vincent argues that artists play a role. ‘We have to be responsible to an audience. [If you think] “If nobody understands it, it’s okay because I am just expressing myself”, you can just express it in the toilet or at home. When you are putting yourselves out in public and asking for people’s time, thoughts and attention, then you should be responsible to give something back’. But Vincent, cynical much? ‘For sure. A lot of it is my own personal view, but I don’t feel that I’m the only one feeling these things,’ he states.
‘You Are Here’s works are arguably symptomatic of being Malaysian today, muddled identities and all. ‘By definition, we’re still not defined. We’re still not Malaysians yet and we still don’t know how to talk to each other. “Am I Chinese? But I’ve never been to China and I don’t know how to speak Chinese. Or am I Malaysian? Oh no, I’m Christian and Indian”. It’s those kinds of questions. A lot of countries don’t seem to have these kinds of problems anymore’. I hear you brother, but are you not attempting to answer these in your works? ‘No,’ he says, leaving it up to us to find the answers for ourselves.
If you think the artist’s cynicism equals just doom and gloom, know that Vincent hasn’t actually given up. ‘I think there’s hope. If there isn’t, I wouldn’t have spent all this time, money and energy making these works,’ he argues, with curator Eva McGovern adding that he ‘could’ve just left’. That says a lot. Malaysia is evolving, her sons and daughters are having trouble identifying themselves here with many leaving for greener pastures, but the wonderful thing about all these insecurities is that sometimes great art comes out of it. And as Vincent says when asked if art can change the world, ‘Fuck yeah’.
'You Are Here' runs from Jun 13–Jul 7. For more info, see listing.